PEN World Voices Festival: On the Edge: Writing in Reunified Germany

By David Varno

PEN World Voices Festival Moments before Clemens Meyer read this past Friday evening, at the Deutches Haus on the Washington Mews, I spotted him outside on the curb with a can of Budweiser. Inside from the rain, the small room filled up quickly and eventually he came in with an interpreter and Three Percent blog's Chad Post (on hand as moderator). The plan had been for Meyer and Antje Ravic Strubel to read and converse about their belonging to the so-called "Post-Wall generation," but unfortunately Strubel couldn't make it to the festival.

"She was so worried about swine flu that she decided to stay in Germany--me not!" Meyer said, pounding his fist on the table and shouting in a highly gregarious, writerly voice that is rare these days.

Meyer began by summarizing, in English, a story from his collection Die Nacht, die Lichter (The night, the lights), which won the 2008 Preis der Leipziger Buchmesse. The story's title was translated as "Dogs and Horses." Meyer wasn't satisfied with that; he thought it should read "Of Dogs and Horses," in order to better show his recognition of Steinbeck. Later, we would learn that much of what informs Meyer's storytelling is derived primarily from American influences.

The story involves an unemployed man whose dog needs a hip replacement, and is unable to get monetary support from family or friends so he winds up at the racetrack. He has no gambling experience, and is quickly found out by a regular who goes on to manipulate the rest of the story's events. Meyer went on to read in German, and then Post took over with the translation supplied by Katy Derbyshire (I love German Books), which was quite good.

Anyone reading this who attended the event would find me in remiss if I neglected to relay the anecdote of Meyer's insistence on a proper reading of the story's racetrack announcer. Post had elected to read a later selection of the story than planned, in order to build on Meyer's summary, but Meyer warned that he wouldn't get the voice of the announcer right. Post read it anyway, and then Meyer re-read it in German with perfect theatricality. I don't have the words to describe it; you just had to be there. Evidently, the author has spent a good deal of time around the track, and claimed that he was able to buy his designer glasses with an afternoon's 1000 euro winnings.

Meyer's debut novel was Als wir traeumten (When we are dreaming), 2006, and was received with much acclaim in Germany. It is about five friends growing up in 1980s East Germany who are driven apart amidst the country's reunification, due to, as Meyer told us, drugs, prison, and death. The story is informed by his reflection on that time in history (he was twelve years old when the wall came down): "I created drama for what I saw and experienced; I saw how it changed the lives of these five friends, and was huge on their lives but not necessarily my own." The book took six years to write, and when asked what took so long, he said that, in part, he had to develop as an author.

Because the evening's program title included the phrase "writing in reunified Germany," and promised to explore a generation of writers in that context, Post nudged Meyer a little on the subject, asking whether or not he feels obligated to write about the wall. His first response was to buy time with the interpreter, discussing in hushed German how he might answer.

"Every contemporary writer addresses the change," he said, eventually, "because you saw it years later: the realpolitik, the sundown of an era. You have to write about it." But on whether he feels connected to a generation of writers, he said that everyone writes on their own, and that he isn't aware of many of the writers that the German press has lumped him with. In addition, his interest has shifted to new subjects: "Now times are changing again...and I'm interested more in the early '90s, the transitional period, possibilities within chaos."

Surely this independence informs Meyer's interest in marginalized characters: the misfit, the outsider. He cited Denis Johnson as a main influence, particularly Jesus' Son, and without having read Meyer (I'm waiting for the English; Derbyshire's translation and Meyer's own synopses are all that I know) I was struck by the similarity, his ability to connect with the stories of the lost and hopeless and somehow give those characters sympathy and life.

Meyer also cited B. Travers' The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (as well as the John Huston film) as influences, and insists that he's read all the other German forbears but that it was the early modern Russian and French novels that he drew from, and the American view of desolation and romantic version of the misfit that most informed him.

I was also touched by the way he addressed his longing for an era when European writers like B. Travers went to Mexico or other far-flung places for inspiration: "writers should go to the jungle to write their books, where know one knows who they are," he said, "but that's impossible in this world. Still, you have to."


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